Green Day Cast Out Demons In Triumphant Return To Stage At SXSW

Rehabbed frontman Billie Joe Armstrong leads frenetic two-hour set including hits, King of Pop impersonator and crowd-surfing fans onstage.

AUSTIN, Texas — On Friday night, Green Day took to the SXSW stage at the Moody Theater’s Austin City Limits Live for a high-energy showcase.

After a brief opening set from Stickup Kid, Green Day emerged promptly at 9 p.m. to a crowd that included both official SXSW badge-holders and lucky die-hard fans who’d won tickets through a contest on the band’s website. After canceling a string of tour dates earlier this year as frontman Billie Joe Armstrong sought treatment in rehab for prescription drug and alcohol abuse, the group had promised to hit the road again later this month, on March 28.

But they got things started a little early in Austin, with a frenetic set that launched with a trio of high-octane hits — “99 Revolutions,” “Know Your Enemy,” and “Stay the Night” — that sent the packed crowd at the intimate theater into a fit of fist-pumping and clapping along. Armstrong was determined to keep that energy high from note one, too: The breakdowns during “99 Revolutions” were peppered with commands to “Get your f—ing hands up!” and “Go f—ing crazy!”

During “Know Your Enemy,” he asked, “Who wants to come up here?” before pulling a young fan onstage with him. After an extended embrace, the two alternated lines during the song’s chorus. Armstrong then encouraged the guy to go for a stage-dive, which he did, into the waiting arms of fans.

It was a good look for a band whose populism has always been its biggest draw. Green Day’s a band whose songs are fun to sing along to, whose choruses demand hand-clapping and shouting, and who have always excelled at making the listener feel like an honorary member of the band. Those songs belong to everyone and, if you need proof, here’s a kid, just like you, singing onstage with the band right now.

Even when the band wasn’t in full-on audience participation mode, and Armstrong wasn’t demanding that the crowd give him the sort of “Heeeeey-ohhhh” call-and-response chants that you’d hear in a soccer stadium, the intimacy of the venue helped maintain an inclusive feel. After a sustained 40 minutes of shout-along rockers, the more subdued, acoustic rendering of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” became a theater-size sing-along.

“Everything is louder in Texas,” Armstrong quipped. Green Day were even joined onstage by an ASL interpreter, who rocked out along with them while offering a rendition of the song for the hearing-impaired.

After years of headlining arenas, Green Day also showed the 2,750-capacity theater it knows how to structure a set. After building through a frantic, 40-minute string of songs from the band’s early-2000s catalog, culminating in “Boulevard,” the band abruptly switched its focus to its ’90s output, leading with Dookie tracks “Burnout” and “Welcome to Paradise,” and reaching back as far as “Christy Road” from 1991′s Kerplunk and “Disappearing Boy” from the band’s 1990 debut, 39/Smooth.

It was a loose, playful set from a tight band. By the 90-minute mark, it was impossible to predict what would happen next. Would they bring out a Michael Jackson impersonator to accompany them on saxophone, or play a medley of “Shout,” “Stand by Me” and “Hey Jude” while lying on their backs? (They did both.) They also left few hits untouched though. Early favorites like “Basket Case” and “She” were well-represented, but the band was comfortable mixing those up, along with latest single “X-Kid” from the recent ¡Tré! or mid-period favorites like “American Idiot,” “Jesus of Suburbia,” and 2000′s “Minority.” The relentless parade of smashes served as a reminder of both the band’s longevity and the depth of its catalog. It’s a long road from “Longview” to “X-Kid,” and Friday night’s SXSW set served as a journey along that path.

Through it all, Armstrong, now clean and sober, was full of an infectious, joyful energy. He led chants, borrowed a cowboy hat from someone in the audience, brought out a T-shirt cannon and even brought another fan onstage to sing the final verse and chorus to the band’s breakthrough single “Longview.”

Armstrong frequently stepped away from the mic for entire verses, trusting the audience to do the singing for him. The performance was triumphant in a very real sense of the word. Green Day had conquered — their demons, punk rock and South by Southwest — and they were here to celebrate the victory. A packed SXSW crowd in a small Austin theater was thrilled to join in.